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Old 12-31-2004, 04:20 PM   #1
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(?) William Shatner - Has Been


Release 2004 on Shout! Factory records.

This will be a long review, so just skip ahead to the short summary about two thirds of the way through if you can't be bothered.

William Shatner - majority of vocals and lyrics
Ben Folds - most music, in organisation if not his own actual playing
Various guest artists appear throughout the album, some on more than one track, in various capacities.

1 - Common People (4:40)
2 - It Hasn't Happened Yet (3:49)
3 - You'll Have Time (5:18)
4 - That's Me Trying (3:48) (lyrics by Nick Hornby)
5 - What Have You Done (1:46)
6 - Together (5:39)
7 - Familiar Love (4:00)
8 - Ideal Woman (2:23)
9 - Has Been (2:18)
10 - I Can't Get Behind That (3:00)
11 - Real (3:08) (written by Brad Paisley, for Shatner specifically)

The continuing celebrity of William Shatner is, I think, something of a mystery to most right-thinking people. Until recently (with his turn on The Practice, and the following spin-off show, Boston Legal), he'd done more or less nothing of note, let alone critical acclaim, for 30-odd years. His sole venture into the recorded world (before his work with Ben Folds), 1968's Transformed Man, was very poorly received. Even in the role he is most known for, that of Captain James T Kirk on Star Trek, he was immediately trumped by Patrick Stewart. Maybe the only thing that's kept him going is the adulation of the world's legions of Star Trek devotees, but for whatever reason, he has remained firmly within the bounds of public awareness; everyone knows William Shatner.


^The Transformed Man LP. Released in 1968, and badly received by more or less everyone. It records the young(er) Shatner's readings of various Shakespeare passages and poetry excerpts, as well as spoken word interpretations of a couple of popular songs. It was intended as a serious work, but it was largely ridiculed as a bad comedy album, and in fact his spoken word Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and Mr Tambourine Man ended up on a Rhino compilation of comedic celebrity songs. Of course, many Trekkies claimed to "get" what Shatner was going for, and the LP remains a kitschy cult item of sorts, but the point stands that (in the words of some other reviewer that I can't bring myself not to copy), "the world needed another William Shatner album about as much as a big-screen remake of TJ Hooker".

Or at least it thought it did. Some thirty years after the perceived Transformed Man debacle, Shatner met and befriended one Ben Folds. Folds, just coming out on his own, away from his Five, was putting together a project to be known as Fear of Pop, and invited Shatner to lend his vocals to a track. He did - the track was In Love - and it was apparently one of the better ones on the album. More importantly, though (for the story of this album, anyway), it resulted in Shatner and Folds being rather good friends. Sometime in 2002, they were on the phone with each other, discussing possible material for an onstage appearance the one was to make with the other, when the possibility of a new Shatner album came up - a record company had contacted him about it. Shatner moved swiftly from "what do you think?" to "will you produce it?", and the core of the album was set. Has Been is at root a Shatner and Folds enterprise; to put it far too simply, Folds handles the music, while Shatner deals with "lyrics", writing down short pieces of poetry and scattered thoughts on his life for revisions and refinements into a musical context.

Initial reaction: it's a comedy album, surely, a novelty, put out by a has been actor to make a quick bit of money. Why should it be bothered with? And more, why should it be bothered with in the light of Transformed Man?

Well, to the first point, it's not a comedy/novelty album. The bombastic, tongue-in-cheek version of Common People, and the straight-faced, dryly humourous take on mortality in the gospel-tinged You'll Have Time may lead you to believe otherwise, but tracks like It Hasn't Happened Yet (a maudlin musing on disappointment and failure) will make you wonder. And then comes What Have You Done, which, despite being only 1:46 long, manages to be a very hard-hitting piece, and if you thought William Shatner could never move you.. With barely a hint of upright bass in the background, a heavy-voiced Shatner tells of finding his wife, dead, in their swimming pool. And that is when you realise, that this is not a joke.

This is the advantage that he has now; he has lived. He has a great well of experience to draw on, and he draws on it well. He's no longer young - in fact he's 73 - and the Shatner of Transformed Man is gone. Has Been is again a serious work, but Shatner (to use a cliche) knows now that he is Shatner, he is in on the joke, so to speak, and this gives him the ability to self-deprecate, to utilise satire and irony, which adds an immeasurably valuable streak of humour, but in a solid way, not in a novelty/comedy album way. This isn't something you can only listen to once; it has a lasting life, as I discovered in listening to practically nothing else for a good few weeks.

Shatner does not sing. He holds no illusions that he is a singer, that the fact he is making an album somehow gives him talent, so he knows his limitations and sticks within them. One of his main contributions to Has Been is simply the words. With the exception of That's Me Trying (and the cover, obviously), every song/piece is based on Shatner, and all but one of them were written directly by him. I can't go overboard and make him out as an undiscovered poetic genius, but he is certainly clever and eloquent enough to be a surprisingly good writer, able to write seriously, heart-warmingly or light-heartedly, as the situation calls for it. It's impossible to give a decent account of the album as a whole, because each track is different. The one constant throughout is Shatner's other great contribution - his voice. His voice is that of an experienced actor, and it's a voice that demands, magnetically, that you listen to it. He can switch between levity and gravity very smoothly; his voice, as well as his words, able to convincingly switch between various styles. Just as important an asset to the album is his (in?)famous style of talking. Whether you know him from the original Star Trek, or his recent TV appearances/adverts, or even just through Family Guy, you'll know what I'm talking about. His stop-start, faux-awkward rhythm of speech is the stuff of legend, and, shockingly, it works perfectly with a musical backdrop. He speaks off-beat, out of time with the music, but rather than ruining it, it just makes for incredibly interesting listening. I think, had he spoken like a regular person, it would have been far more boring.
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Old 12-31-2004, 04:22 PM   #2
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[not part of the real review]
Here's a short track-by-track review, both for people who are too lazy to read through my actual review, and because like I say it's impossible to give a decent idea of the music without going track-by-track. What's left of the review will continue afterwards.

1 - Common People (4:40)
I've already used the word, but "bombastic" is the best way to describe this, a power-pop cover of Pulp's Britpop anthem. I don't know how well known it is outside of Britain, but it's one of the songs that just seems to be known here. The main problem, for me, with the original by Pulp is that it's by Pulp. Pulp, or Jarviss Cocker to be specific, always annoyed me, so although the original Common People was good, I far prefer this one. Shatner's off-beat, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind delivery of Cocker's lyrics is perfect. There are some differences, though - for example, Shatner's take on the line "You wanna sleep with common people like me?" is incredulous, rather than sarcastic as the original is, and his American accent on "bath" clashes with Joe Jackson's cockney-accented "laugh" (Jackson does back-up and chorus vocals, since the chorus here really does require singing, and Shatner doesn't sing), but overall it's a great cover. Add in a couple of dozen people for a spontaneous "common people's choir" for the chorus, and it's an awesome, high-energy, catchy song. Perfect. Until the very end of the album, though, it's the only real "song".

2 - It Hasn't Happened Yet (3:49)
The perfect antidote to Common People's avalanche of enthusiasm. This is a slow, depression-tinged piece about the lack of comfort/serenity he hasn't found, but that he feels he should have, what with being 73. If I had to assign a musical style to it, I'd suppose "lounge jazz" would just about do it. Features some nice piano from Folds, incidentally.

3 - You'll Have Time (5:18)
This is again slow, and this time features a gospel choir, as well as Joe Jackson's other contribution to the record, on piano (Folds takes up the Wurlitzer organ for this one). It's one of the more obviously humourous tracks, with the chorus line "you're gonna die", but it's not entirely light-hearted. More tongue-in-cheek, and there's the pervading sense of mortality which crops up throughout much of the album, presumably because it's William Shatner's album, and he's aware he's not long for this world. If anything, it's overlong, but otherwise it's another winner.

4 - That's Me Trying (3:48)
Shatner's vocal rhythm makes another star appearance here, in the only song which is in now way anything to do with him. It's written by Nick Hornby (the author, of High Fidelity/About a Boy/etc), set to music by Folds, and is in the style of a letter written by an estranged father to this (now) 40-year old daughter, who he hasn't seen for 20 years. It's very well done, and catchy (the chorus singing provided by Ben Folds and Aimee Mann, in Mann's only appearance on the album).

5 - What Have You Done? (1:46)
Covered adequately in the rest of the review.

6 - Together (5:39)
This is more or less the complete opposite of the previous track. From minimalist spoken word about the untimely death of his previous wife, to cryptic utterings to his current wife (cryptic in that they are, I think, only supposed to make sense to her; we're given no context). I think this is the only track which Folds has nothing to do with, other than presumably getting the musicians in. The musicians in question are the UK's own Lemon Jelly, who construct the summery, feel-good backing music from their instruments and lots of programming.

7 - Familiar Love (4:00)
This is one of two tracks that form a sort of slight mid-album slump. They're not bad at all, I just don't like them so much as I do the rest of them, though since I tend to just listen through the whole album whenever I listen to it anyway, that hardly matters. Again slow, lounge jazz in style, though this time upbeat, it's another song to his wife, Elizabeth, basically takling the point of view that over-familiarity is a good thing. It's incredibly cheesy, but I'm not complaining.

8 - Ideal Woman (2:23)
This is a more upbeat song, in a sort of sleazy swing style, again about his wife, this time telling her all the things he likes about her, and the occasional thing he could do without. Short and fun.

9 - Has Been (2:18)
Now, this is short and genius. The title track is in the style of a spaghetti western, Rawhide-style theme song. Here, Shatner fully embraces the phrase "has been", and dances around with it, ridiculing the three bandito characters he invents to represent the naysayers he gets, the armchair psychologists who constantly take the michael. And it's just awesome.

10 - I Can't Get Behind That (3:00)
Henry Rollins and Shatner both come up with a list of complaints about growing old and the modern world to have a shouting match about, while Adrian Belew makes abstract, car engine-imitating noises with his guitar in the background. "'Lifetime guarantee'? Whose lifetime? Not mine, I haven't that much time left" wins the Best Complaint Competition, but it's a very close thing.

11 - Real (3:08)
Written by Brad Paisley, a fairly poppy country music musician. Poppy he may be, but he's actually a pretty good guitarist, and has a really good voice. This is probably my favourite song on the album, as, without mentioning the name of that most famous of star captains, Shatner firmly and finally tells his fans that he is not that character, never was, never will be. This features more excellent piano from Folds, excellent guitar work and singing from Paisley, and an excellent performance from Bill himself, but there's just something else there, too. I don't know what. I just know that this is just one of the world's actually perfect songs.

[/not part of the real review]

Now, brace yourself. The rating is coming up soon ("hurrah!", I hear you say, "the end is in sight!"..I understand. It's been a long review, and I bet you're tired), but that's not really important. Something like this is impossible to rate in the traditional sense, in the way that most of the albums reviewed here are rated. Like most things that are really unique, there's no basis for it, no point of reference; like a covers album, it's down to each persons individual standing as to whether they like it. There isn't, indeed there can't be, any absolute. The thing is, though, you have to hear it. Just have to. I'm not trying to say that the music itself is necessarily mind-blowing, or (with the exception of What Have You Done) particularly moving or special, but the album as a whole is the sound of someone who feels he's coming to the end of his life, and so is trying to leave something behind, whilst sorting out a few loose ends to his life in his mind, and of course having tremendous fun doing it all, and the result is that, in the same way as Johnny Cash's unbelievable rendition of Hurt, you just have to. It's inexplicable. All I know is that somehow, against (it must be said) pretty much every odd there can be, William Shatner (with a little help from his friends) has pulled off the album of the year .

5/5

Last edited by Bartender; 01-21-2006 at 06:24 AM.
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Old 12-31-2004, 04:55 PM   #3
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I've posted the Transformed Man picture at the beginning of the second post to stretch it out to the same width as the first, since the difference was annoying, reading through it.

EDIT: never mind, having the picture twice in one review caused bandwidth to be exceeded, so we'll just have to live with the ugliness.

Last edited by Bartender; 01-01-2005 at 08:31 AM.
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Old 12-31-2004, 05:12 PM   #4
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Oh sweet jeebus.
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Old 12-31-2004, 05:35 PM   #5
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Excellent review. I actually read the whole thing, and I appreciate the fact that you went as in depth as you did, not just with the album, but with the history behind it as well. Im kinda tired of reading skin and bones reviews, so I always enjoy when I get to read a good one.

I didnt know Shatner was in the biz again, but hey more power to him. I honestly never heard any of the stuff he did, and I really dont know what compelled to read the review. But if its half as good as you say it is, it might be worth checkin out.
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Old 12-31-2004, 05:54 PM   #6
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Wow, honestly that was one of the best reviews I've ever read. I saw the song "Common People" on Leno and it's a catchy number. I wil be looking into this further.
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Old 12-31-2004, 05:57 PM   #7
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Such a good album. One of the best reviews I've seen on the forums too Bartender.
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Old 01-01-2005, 04:09 AM   #8
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"I hate to break it to you, but you're all gonna die".

Best lyric ever
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Old 01-01-2005, 09:37 AM   #9
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The first time I saw this album a few months ago I thought this was "old people stuff". I guess I was wrong. Fantastic review BT! I'll check this out soon.
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Old 01-01-2005, 12:16 PM   #10
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That was a fantastic review. I'm still not convinced, but seeing as so many people with good taste are rating it, I may just have to give it a spin.

I find his version of Common People hilarious, especially where he goes 'and dance, and drink, and SCREW'. but I don't actually think it's a good cover, per se. Pulp did it so very much better, IMHO.
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Old 01-01-2005, 04:52 PM   #11
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There's so many brilliant one liners on this album. Sometimes theres more great one liners in one song than many bands think of in their careear.
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Old 01-01-2005, 06:59 PM   #12
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Excellent review, though I'm still not convinced that I actually want to listen to a spoken word album. (Though Adrien Belew is tempting...)
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Old 01-01-2005, 07:30 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Fast Fingers
Oh sweet jeebus.
What measure of jeebus is that?

Quote:
Originally Posted by The Ashtray Girl
I find his version of Common People hilarious, especially where he goes 'and dance, and drink, and SCREW'. but I don't actually think it's a good cover, per se. Pulp did it so very much better, IMHO.
Fair enough, but like I say, Pulp just always annoyed me anyway. Hearing Capatin Kirk shouting "dance, and drink, and screw!" is something of a highlight, though.

Quote:
Originally Posted by FillInTheBlankHere__
Excellent review, though I'm still not convinced that I actually want to listen to a spoken word album. (Though Adrien Belew is tempting...)
It depends what you're thinking of as a spoken word album though, because here, it's not literally some guy talking for forty minutes (which is more or less what I thought a spoken word album was supposed to be, before buying this). There's plenty of music here, guest musicians and guest vocalists (though they never take the main line in a song, except maybe Henry Rollins), and though Shatner doesn't sing, he's an actor, so his voice has some measure of rhythm - especially Shatner's voice in particular. Can't blame you for being apprehensive, though, and I'm still not sure what kind of music your tastes run to (except that so far it falls under "awesome).

Thanks everyone, for comments, and thanks br3ad, for being someone who also likes this album quite a bit (something which I wasn't expecting).
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Old 01-01-2005, 08:06 PM   #14
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I love it. I can't say enough about it.
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Old 01-02-2005, 03:05 AM   #15
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Great review, Bartender. Your long-wind inspires us all.
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Old 01-02-2005, 03:18 AM   #16
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I saw quite a bit of people putting this under "the best album of 2004" on a thread on the SA forums and thought it was a joke.. But I'll definately check this out now.
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Old 01-02-2005, 06:04 AM   #17
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Excellent..

The album is simply amazing....

Wonderful. Wonderful music.
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Old 01-02-2005, 07:11 AM   #18
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One of the best reviews on the site Bartender.

I am going to go buy this album as soon as I can now, thanks to that.
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Old 01-02-2005, 05:41 PM   #19
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You won't regret it.
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Old 01-02-2005, 06:26 PM   #20
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One of the best reviews on the site Bartender.
123, by far.
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Old 01-02-2005, 07:53 PM   #21
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This album is amazing. I as well expected it to be just a novelty item, but it is powerful. Shatner's emotion in "Common People" is simply awe-inspiring. He has that advantage, being an actor, that he can take the words and poetry of another person and bring them to life with the depth that the author implied. Great review too.
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Old 01-02-2005, 10:47 PM   #22
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You know, I might just have to look into this album.
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Old 01-16-2005, 05:56 AM   #23
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I checked this album out because a friend of mine was raving over it, and I was really surprised. It's so much better than it has any right to be. I mean, it's William Shatner, I was expecting at best to laugh and then never listen to it again. But it's really solid.

I'd guess that a big part of why it's so good is because of Ben Folds... he knows how to keep the right balance of irony, without actually making fun of Shatner. I mean, it IS funny, but it's not just based on "omg shatner talks so funny" like I expected it to be. Even on Common People, he's laughing too, and you can tell that Shatner had fun making this. Now, I wouldn't give it a 5/5, nor would I say it was the best album of 2004, but it is really good.

Also, this is the best review that I've read on MX.

Last edited by Tomahawk; 01-16-2005 at 06:00 AM.
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Old 01-16-2005, 06:06 AM   #24
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I can honestly say I would never have even considered purchasing this album if I hadn't read your review. But you definitely sold it, and on the CD list it goes. Excellent, excellent review, you are a very convincing writer. Nothing much else to say, it better be as good as you make it out to be though .
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Old 01-16-2005, 08:42 AM   #25
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I'm listening to common people right now, and really enjoying it!.. It actually made me laugh, but not because of the music being bad, more because it was suprisingly good

Edit:
Listening to You'll have time now.. This is really really good so far

Last edited by denboy; 01-16-2005 at 08:56 AM.
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Old 01-16-2005, 02:38 PM   #26
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Yeah, I've only heard 'Common People', which did make me laugh although I thought it was enjoyable, but a really good, well-written review. Certainly makes me want to check out some more reviews of it. Good job!
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Old 01-16-2005, 05:43 PM   #27
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Damnit... This album is too good, considering what it is.
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